California's Supreme Court issued two important cases today involving the public's right to know. In one, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers v. The Superior Court of Alameda County, the court held that the public has the right to obtain the names and salaries of public employees earning $100,000 or more a year. In the other, Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training v. The Superior Court of Sacramento County, the court required the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to disclose the names, employing departments and hiring and termination dates of California peace officers.
Both cases grew out of requests by newspapers to obtain the records. The salary case involved a request by reporters at Contra Costa Newspapers that Oakland city officials provide them with the names, job titles and gross salaries of city employees who earned $100,000 or more. The city agreed to provide the information by job classification but refused to link it to employees by name. The issue before the court was whether the information was exempt from disclosure under a statutory public-records exemption for "personnel, medical or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Concluding that the exemption does not apply to salary information, the court cited "the strong public policy supporting transparency in government."
In the peace officer case, a Los Angeles Times reporter requested records held in an electronic database maintained by the peace-officer commission. Specifically, the reporter asked for 10 years' data on new appointments, including names, employing department, appointment dates, termination dates and reasons for termination. In denying the request, the commission relied on a penal code provision that makes peace-officer personnel records confidential. But the court found that the provision applies only to types of information expressly listed in the statute, such as medical histories and disciplinary records, but not to the information requested by the reporter.